ReelThoughts: August 30, 2009

"I Hate Vampires"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


For nearly a century after the publication of Bram Stoker's classic novel, the term "vampire" was synonymous with the name "Dracula." The only vampires anyone remembers from the '20s (Schreck), '30s (Lugosi), and '50s (Lee) were Draculas (although, for reasons having to do with copyright infringement, he was not called "Dracula" in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu). During the vampire boom of the late '70s, it was Dracula-mania. There was a lavish BBC-TV dramatization of the novel (possibly the most faithful screen or television adaptation to date) with Louis Jordan, a major motion picture with Frank Langella, and a TV series (The Curse of Dracula, the most popular segment of the anthology series Cliffhangers). Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu, with Klaus Kinski in the lead role. There was also the obligatory spoof, Love at First Bite - but even in that one, George Hamilton played a "Dracula."

Surprisingly, despite all of these appearances, Dracula never became old or boring. Now, however, he is largely forgotten. The "new breed" of undead have driven the final stake through his heart.

It started with Ann Rice. The publication of Interview with the Vampire occurred during the '70s vampire boom, and introduced some radical new ideas into vampire lore. However, it was the 1985 publication of The Vampire Lestat that got the series rolling. Rice may have been the first one to re-imagine the vampire as more than a heartless, soulless bloodsucking seducer of virgins, but she certainly wasn't the last. Far from it, in fact.

Once upon a time, vampires were monsters. Creatures of the night. Beasts who crawled from their coffins at night; consorted with spiders, bats, and rats; ravaged women and tore out the throats of men. They were demonic; spawns of Satan. The best known image of the vampire is that of Bela Lugosi, whose intonation of the line: "I never drinků wine" has become the standard. However, there's something to be said for Max Schreck's appearance as the corpse-like Dracula (officially called "Count Orlok" due to rights issues with Bram Stoker's widow/estate). Has there ever been a creepier vampire? (Perhaps only in Salem's Lot, the 1979 TV mini-series, but that vampire was inspired by Orlok.)

There was a time when a "vampire movie" was synonymous with a "horror movie." The two went hand-in-glove, except in the case of parody: Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, Love at First Bite, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc. No one ever thought about making Dracula sympathetic. He was the ultimate villain and he was treated as such. In the '70s, Langella and Jordan added sex appeal to the character but he was still a vile, damned creature.

If the erosion of vampires as monsters began with Rice, it accelerated in the 1990s when a little movie called Buffy the Vampire Slayer was converted to a T.V. series by Joss Whedon. In Whedon's world, vampires were more three-dimensional than anything previously seen. Whedon pilfered freely from Rice, old-school vampires, and the '70s comic book The Tomb of Dracula, and added plenty of his own ideas and material. For the better part of the '90s, his version of the vampire was seen as the definitive one.

Francis Ford Coppola got on the "wimpification of vampires" bandwagon in 1992, targeting none other than Dracula himself. With a title that mistakenly conveyed a sense of faithfulness, Bram Stoker's Dracula stayed closer to the book than any previous cinematic interpretation but appended a love story between the Count and Mina than has its roots not in Stoker's story but in the desire to humanize Dracula and make him a more sympathetic figure. Take away the "sym" and you get a fair idea of how he comes across. Of course, the de-fanging of the vampire is only one of several major problems with Coppola's inexplicably popular adaptation. Of greater concern are Keanu Reeves' eerie ability to imitate cardboard and Anthony Hopkins' attempts to channel Grandpa Munster on LSD.

My favorite vampire movie of all-time is Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu, which oozes so much atmosphere that the screen threatens to liquefy. It's an amazing production and is utterly unlike any other Dracula movie, including its predecessor. (For one thing, Herzog is able to abandon Orlok and call the Count by his proper name.) My favorite non-Dracula vampire movie is Fright Night, in which Chris Sarandon does an excellent job exploring the sexual/monstrous duality of the creature. I expect this will be remade fairly soon, as is true of every movie older than 20 years with a potential audience.

To say that vampires are overexposed today is to understate matters. They're "in" like never before, in large part due to the bastardization committed by a hack writer named Stephanie Meyer. Meyer is the literary equivalent of P.T. Barnum. Her skills as a writer are sub-par. She's not a very good storyteller. And she has emasculated vampires, turning them into bad boys with pasty skin. Despite professions of being deeply religious (to the point where she has never seen an R-rated movie), she nevertheless latches onto the spawn of Satan as a role model. Of course, in her world view, vampires aren't evil; they're just misunderstood.

The vampires in True Blood are dirtier and nastier than their Twilight cousins - the show is worth seeing for its sex and nudity alone - but it's part of the same problem. Twilight is a romance. True Blood is a romance/drama/thriller hybrid. Neither is true horror. In fact, Twilight isn't any kind of horror at all, unless you consider how many impressionable young women are being carried away by the adventures of the vapid Bella, who has singlehandedly set feminism back several generations. I contend that having sex with a vampire isn't substantially different from having sex with an animated corpse. Dead, undead - why quibble? Neither generates body heat or has a pumping heart. To my way of thinking, that makes both Bella and Sookie necrophiliacs. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Live and let live (so to speak). Ask Molly Parker from Kissed.

I used to love vampires. I watched Creature Double Feature every Saturday afternoon and hoped we'd get one of the Hammer vampire movies (infinitely superior to the Lugosi one). My holy grail as a kid was Nosferatu, which I never got a chance to see because it was a silent movie and, even though CDF had no problems with black & white, sound was a necessity. As a result, I didn't catch Nosferatu until the '90s. But I saw the stills of Schreck in my hardcover monster movie book and thought what a perfectly nightmarish vampire he was. Today, vampires still exist in dreams, but now they're the erotic dreams of teenage girls. I challenge anyone to relate an erotic dream about Count Orlok.

Modern vampires make me sick. Namby-pamby wimps. Twits that sparkle in the sunlight instead of bursting into flame or dying a long, agonizing death. Does garlic scare the shit out of Edward? What about a cross or holy water? Can he change into a bat and summon rats? Does his mesmeric influence result in Bella dining on spiders?

That's not to say all vampire movies are warped by an estrogen overdose. I was partial to 30 Days of Night, which had a cool premise and in which the vampires were almost scary. Then there was last year's Let the Right One In, which was kind-of a vampire love story, but with a depth that puts Twilight to shame. For those who want to experience a different kind of vampire movie, there's an indication of where things can go.

Some may notice that I have neglected to mention the Blade and Underworld movies, but there's a reason for this. The vampires in those movies are a closer kin to the zombies in George A. Romero's Dead films than to their traditional brethren. These vampires aren't any more "real" than the imposters masquerading as the living dead in Twilight, but at least they're freaky. I could also mention Van Helsing here but will refrain from doing so as a service to my readers.

You'd think that in this landslide of vampire-mania, someone might take the time to do an old-school, hard-core vampire movie. Doesn't have to be Dracula; it merely needs to remain true to the general principles that defined vampires when they were the embodiments of death and decay, and when the experience of being sucked dry was more akin to rape than ecstasy. Surely there's a great untold vampire story out there - one that will scare the hell out of everyone in the audience. Let's get that made and start restoring a little dignity to the most venerable of mythical monsters.


A selection of Draculas through the years: Schreck as Count Orlock (1922), Lugosi (1931), Christopher Lee (1958), Frank Langella (1979), Klaus Kinski (1979)








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